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'This is a historic moment' | Puerto Rico statehood, independence vote bill passes U.S. House

In a 232-191 vote, the bill was passed by 216 Democrats and 16 Republicans. All votes against the bill came from Republicans.

ATLANTA — The House voted Thursday in favor of the Puerto Rico Status Act, which seeks to resolve the U.S. territory's status and its relationship to the mainland.

That means the U.S. is one step closer to allowing Puerto Ricans to decide on three potential political futures: becoming independent, becoming a state, or becoming an associated state - all which would establish new relationships with the U.S.

Georgia State Rep. Pedro Marin, who is originally from Puerto Rico, explains that although the bill faces hurdles in the U.S. Senate, it has the power to change international relations.

"This is a historic moment because this is the first time a bill like this has come to the U.S. House of Representative floor for a vote," he said. "We had several other bills in past years, but never has gone to a vote."

Marin's family played a big role in establishing Puerto Rico as a commonwealth decades ago, helping Luis Muñoz Marin - the island's first governor elected for Puerto Rico by Puerto Ricans - be selected to lead the island nation.

"The argument is that we've been a territory - other people say we've been a colony - of the United States, but the commonwealth helped industrialize the island, so it had its purpose," he explained. "You have to have a seat at the table. Right now, we don't have a seat at the table. And I think statehood will, will bring some of that.”

Puerto Ricans living on the island have been U.S. citizens for more than a century. 

They can be drafted and serve in the U.S. military but are unable to vote for president. They don’t pay federal income taxes, since they don’t have voting representation in Congress. However, they do contribute to payroll taxes, helping fund federal programs such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Puerto Rico has limited or no access to these federal programs with the potential to serve as lifelines in a territory where more than 40% of the population lives in poverty.

For decades, the debate waged on over the political future of Puerto Rico. There are more than 3.2 million people living on the island, which is why some states don't want to add a 51st.

“You have a lot of states that don't want to have Puerto Rico become a state because they will become more political, they will have more political power than those states," Marin said. "Vermont, New Jersey, Rhode Island, a lot of those states that maybe have two or three Congressmen, Puerto Rico would have about six or seven, because of the population."

In a 232-191 vote, the bill was passed by 216 Democrats and 16 Republicans. All votes against the bill came from Republicans.

Carlos Sanchez, who moved to Georgia more than two decades ago, wants independence for the island he was born on but thinks it might not be feasible.

“Is it going to be more beneficial for Puerto Rico to become a state, or are they going to be able to survive and thrive as an independent nation right now?" he explained. "Half of my family has wanted statehood for decades; the other half has wanted independence, but they're a lot more pessimistic about our chances of surviving and thriving as an independent nation today as opposed to back in the 90s or in the 80s."

He says a lot has changed in Puerto Rico through the years.

"It's important for people to understand the history of our of industrialists in Puerto Rico and how we switched from more of a farming and agriculture-focused economy to more technology, industrial focus," he said. "It's tough. People also feel like if you become a state that Puerto Rico might lose their culture and a lot of those things that come with our status quo right now."

Belisa Urbina’s father-in-law was a pro-statehood leader and Speaker of the House in Puerto Rico for years.

"I don't think Puerto Ricans have enough representation," she said. "We have a person that has (a) voice in Congress, but she doesn't have a vote. And obviously, in Congress, you have to negotiate and if you don't have a vote, then your negotiation power is greatly diminished.”

Urbina explains a lot of people are leaving the island, too, so change needs to come.

"In Puerto Rico, the age, the median age is increasing by leaps and bounds. So slowly, we're surely - we're losing our children," she said. "So I think that having a definition is going to help with economic opportunities, and also some support in moments of need."

Marin echoed a similar thought.

"Right now, what's happening is that a lot of professionals are leaving the island to (the) United States, because they make more money," he said. "Being if you're bilingual, you will make more money, doctors, teachers, engineers, architects, you know, there's a lot of people, leaving the island to come to United States because of the economy."

Regardless, Marin reminds people that this vote would not be for the diaspora - or Puerto Ricans who have moved out of the island - to decide. Instead, it's for the millions still living on the island.

"It has been a really, a rollercoaster, for Puerto Ricans. Our national pastime is Puerto Rican politics," he said.

The Puerto Rico Status Act now needs 60 votes in the closely divided Senate before it can ever be signed into law by President Biden.

With just one day left of the Democratic-controlled Congress, the status debate has never been on the Senate’s agenda, meaning the process to ensure the bill becomes law will essentially restart next year with the newly elected Congress.

"The sad thing is that the new upcoming Chair of the Committee on Natural Resources, which is the one that oversees this debate in from Puerto Rico, is going to be a Republican," Marin explained. "He already said that it's not going to be argued in the next two years in Congress if it doesn't pass in the Senate. So as you see this is going to be very critical."

Marin, Urbina, and Sanchez - the three Puerto Ricans living in Georgia that offered their insights on the topic say, regardless of whether the bill is taken up by the Senate, this is an important step forward.

"We need to have a definition for the island and for the many citizens that live on the island. So I think it's even if the process is not completed is a great first step," Urbina reiterated.

In January, Republicans will have control of the House.

In a statement ahead of Thursday's hearing, President Biden expressed his support of the Puerto Rico Status Act, calling on Congress "to act swiftly to put the future of Puerto Rico’s political status in the hands of Puerto Ricans, where it belongs."

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